As a girl, Mona Newbauer had special reason to look forward to holidays.
“Dad would always get me something from Esther Price, a local chocolatier,” she said. “A chocolate Santa Claus for Christmas, or a big easter egg with my name on it at Easter. Those were great memories for me.”
Today, Mona is creating sweet memories for her own customers at Sweet Mona’s Chocolate Boutique. Business is brisk at the small retail store located at 138 Second Street in Langley. Customers crowd the counter to buy creamy bars of fudge, buttery caramels, and truffles made from a variety of imported Central American chocolates.
Recently celebrating its seventh year, the beloved local sweet shop began rather by accident. Mona’s son Phillip was 22 years old when, on a whim, he approached a local bakery and claimed that his mother wanted to make truffles for them to sell. The baker excitedly called her to get a supply.
“At the time, I didn’t even know how to spell ‘truffle,’” said Mona with a laugh. But she accepted the challenge. She and her husband, Tony, found a chocolate supplier who agreed to meet them at a pull off on Hwy. 525. The raw imported chocolate was in the trunk.
“We gave him money, he gave us the chocolate,” she said. “It was like a drug deal.”
He also gave them a recipe for truffles and Mona began experimenting. Soon, she had a batch to sell. At one dollar apiece, the truffles sold out immediately and a business was born. In addition to the bakery, the couple sold their chocolates at the Bayiew Farmers’ Market, as well as at a local gourmet gift shop. They rented a kitchen by the hour. Then the day. Then the week. Mona enrolled in the esteemed Ecole Chocolate in Vancouver and refined her craft and recipes.
When a store front became available, the Newbauers scraped together $7,000, paying half out for rent. The first few years of business were tough. First-year sales barely topped $22,000. Mona often thought of quitting. But then, almost miraculously, someone would step in with a small loan or help with marketing, and the Newbauer’s persevered.
“I realized it was gonna take more effort to be successful. In a town of 1,100, even if everyone loved chocolate and supported us everyday, it would be a challenge,” she said.
So, about three years ago, she began expanding her Internet sales. Fortune smiled when the retail giant Amazon.com accepted Mona’s application as a premium chocolate supplier. Favorable reviews helped grow her customer base, and one of her specialties - a dark chocolate caramel topped with sea salt - caught fire, earning a five-star rating (the highest) from customers.
In 2012, Sweet Mona’s surpassed $40,000 in online sales, accounting for roughly one-fifth of annual revenue. The chocolatier expects to reach the magical $1 million in total sales in 2013.
In addition to heavenly chocolates, Mona credits customer service as a key to the businesses’ growing online success. Internet chocolate lovers appreciate the extra attention that not only goes into Mona’s chocolates, but in their care and shipping.
For instance, a woman from Texas was planning a luncheon and ordered several boxes of the dark sea salt caramels. It was summertime, and the staff at Mona’s checked temperatures in the Lone Star State - a withering mid-90s. They packed the gift-boxed treats in a thermal bag with three blocks of blue ice.
“I was fully prepared to receive a puddle of chocolate,” said the customer. “The chocolate had not melted at all...” Her luncheon was a success, and Mona’s had a customer for life.
Stopping in at Sweet Mona’s, I watched as caramel was prepared in a large copper kettle. After cooling on a marble slab, the caramel would be dipped in dark liquid chocolate and finished with a sprinkle of Hawaiian sea salt. I sampled a flawless square from the window case. Rich, smooth caramel flavor with just enough softness was complemented by the dark and earthy chocolate flavor, with the salt adding an arresting, explosive bite. Beyond yummy. It was a memory.
If you can’t visit Sweet Mona’s and watch them make handmade chocolate from premium ingredients, visit their online retail shop at: www.sweetmonas.com. You'll also find exclusive Sweet Mona's chocolate bars inside the WiFire Coffee Bar in Freeland.